I know that obesity statistics are literally shoved down our throats. But hey, if we’re going to over-consume the wrong foods at least we should be aware of the results. There are some startling new stats about obesity in a viewpoint article published in the June 7th issue of JAMA. The article is titled “Lifespan Weighed Down by Diet”.
The author is a physician from Boston’s Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He introduces the article with the fact that in 1850’s, life expectancy for Caucasians was an estimated 38 years for men and 40 years for women! (Those period TV shows we like to watch don’t really portray this.) The good news is that these numbers nearly doubled by 1982 to 71 years for men and 78 years for women. But with the start of the obesity epidemic in the late 1970s, this trend began to slow down and there are predictions that life expectancy in the US will decline by the mid 21st-century. And we may be seeing this happen already… death rates for the first 9 months of 2015 are higher than they were in the same period in 2014. Most of these are due to obesity and include a 1% increase for heart disease, 1% for diabetes, 3% for chronic liver disease, 4% for stroke and 19% for Alzheimer’s disease. It appears that our current medical therapies are not enough to overcome our current weight. Millions of individuals in the US depend on medications to lower their levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose. They undergo surgical procedures to open or bypass blocked arteries and they go through dialysis once their kidneys fail. The counties in the US that show a decline in life expectancy correspond to those most severely affected by obesity (the Southeast and Midwest). The author also emphasizes that this downward trend in longevity will accelerate as the current generation of children with higher body weights (they too are becoming obese) reach adulthood.
He and many researchers blame sugary foods, refined grains products and other high glycemic load carbohydrates for this. They consist of “bad calories” which increase insulin levels, cause fat deposition, weight gain and diabetes. The wrong calories can affect hunger, hormones and may even affect genetic expression. So despite what we’ve been taught for years it’s not “calories in, calories out” but rather the type of calories and the foods that they are in, that impacts our weight. He also points out that calorie dense foods like nuts, dark chocolate and olive oil have “good calories” (Yeah!)
Unfortunately, companies do not stand to profit from basic nutritional research, so little is done. In 2015 the National Institutes of Health spent $900 million on obesity research. It sounds like a lot but it’s not; it’s the cost of bringing just one drug to market. Apparently we are also not getting the best advice. The first recommendation among the newly released 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is to “choose… an appropriate calorie level to help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.” He feels that the food industry takes advantage of this “by lobbying against sensible regulations, for example, to tax sugary beverages and limit advertising for children”. Again let me quote him: “National policies are needed that shift away from low quality commodities like corn and wheat and instead encourage production of high quality proteins, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and other whole foods. In addition, greater investment in schools must be made so that they can serve high-quality meals to children and offer regular physical education and after school recreation opportunities. Children must be protected from predatory advertising.” (I should note here, that these are programs that are supported by Save The Children in the US.)
We can vote to do this with our forks (and dollars) and purchase the right kind of food which will incentivize the market and industries. Our longevity and health span is at stake.
I just finished my banana while writing this; I think I’ll go get some dark chocolate…